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Money, Money, Money: How Financial Aid Gets Applied at SAIC

Understanding how award decisions are made.

By Featured, SAIC, Uncategorized

Illustration by Shijing Li

From 1980 to 2020, the average price of tuition, fees, and room and board for an undergraduate degree increased 169%, according to one March 2022 Forbes article. With the rising cost of tuition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), which is no exception to this trend, how does financial aid for students get applied? Who gets merit-based awards? How are need-based scholarships decided? How does SAIC ensure equity and fairness in making these decisions? Here are a few answers to these and other questions.

How do merit awards get decided?

SAIC offers merit-based awards after admission decisions are made, according to Rose Milkowski, SAIC’s Vice President of Enrollment Management, a department that covers admissions and Student Financial Services for both graduates and undergraduates.

In deciding merit awards for undergraduates, SAIC “determines a score based upon student grades, the personal statement, their portfolio, and several other factors that produce a merit award intended to get the student to enroll. Some faculty are involved in this determination. Do we think they’d be a good fit?” For graduate students, according to Milkowski, “faculty make the big decision about merit awards.”

How do need-based awards get decided?

Students who want federal aid (whether grants, scholarships, or work study) and are U.S. Citizens submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to the U.S. Department of Education. The Department then uses this form to produce a student’s Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). According to the department’s website, this is “an index number” used to determine a student’s eligibility for federal aid. As explained in a March 2019 U.S. News & World Report article, the EFC is not a guarantee of the amount a family will pay and merely a starting point. SAIC offers need-based aid to graduates and undergraduates using this EFC. “We look at the cost of tuition, subtract merit awards, then look at unmet need and give a need-based award that is a percentage of that unmet need,” says Milkowski. “It doesn’t cover all needs.” This percentage is uniform across all families; according to Milkowski, SAIC exercises no discretion in extending need-based aid to a given individual. Need-based awards are a combination of both tuition discounts and grants, but “tuition discounts get applied after merit and need-based awards are made,” she adds. “Then, the student can look at that final number and make a decision.”

Students who receive merit awards keep those awards until graduation as long as they continue to pass their classes, although SAIC does offer an appeal process. Because need is based upon tuition, the cost of attendance, and the EFC, the amount of need (and award) can vary, but, “if your income stays consistent, then your need-based award will stay with you as well,” says Milkowski.

What about funding and grants?

In addition to federal student aid, SAIC has access to other sources of funding from donors who contribute through restricted endowments and direct annual gifts. “We’re lucky to have a strong donor base,” says Milkowski. As previously reported by F Newsmagazine in its Dec. 2022 issue, Alexandra Holt, Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration, noted that of SAIC’s $300 million endowment, roughly $102 million is restricted for scholarships, and about 4.5% each year is drawn from that $102 million for those purposes.

How does diversity and access to education factor into aid decisions?

“We cannot have scholarships that are based on ethnicity, age, or orientation,” says Milkowski, who noted various legal challenges at other schools. “We can give scholarships, however, based on students who are first generation to attend college, or students with need from a specific city, or even a specific school. Legally, we can’t give an award to a student based upon whether they are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color).”

In October 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases debating whether race-based admissions are constitutional, their decision could jeopardize affirmative action across the country. These two cases do not specifically challenge scholarships, but admission decisions. Regardless, Milkowski’s statements may reflect the anticipated broader consequences of decisions that rule against affirmative action.

The financial impact of college on SAIC students, and virtually every other school in the U.S., is quantified in the The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard (collegescorecard.ed.gov), which provides the public with a wide range of data on enrollment and the cost of college.

Alberto Betancourt, Press Officer in the Office of Communications & Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, describes this Scorecard as “a consumer information tool.” Because it uses data from key sources and mandatory reporting requirements, the Scorecard can also “be used for accreditation, and policy decisions at the state and local level.” Accurate reporting is critical, because, for schools like SAIC that participate in federal student aid programs, inaccurate reporting has serious potential consequences. As noted by Glenn Colby, Senior Research Officer with the American Association of University Professors, if a school does not report properly, it risks losing Title IV status and the ability to receive federal aid on behalf of students. This means the numbers contained in the Scorecard can and should be taken seriously.

What about affordability and access at SAIC?

Student Financial Services is limited by the amount of funds available, which means that one answer may be found in SAIC’s fundraising goals and enrollment numbers. Based on publicly disclosed financial documents, tuition provides the bulk of SAIC’s revenue. As a tuition-driven institution, SAIC has a minimum target enrollment each year. For freshman and transfer students, Milkowski says this number is between 760-780 students. “For graduate students, those are finite, smaller numbers, and each program needs to land right on their target. The goal is to hit the number for each program so the students get a good quality of education.” Milkowski admitted that enrollment doesn’t always hit target numbers. A drop in enrollment means less revenue for SAIC to pay for programs, which then heightens the demand on other sources of aid and funding.

In a previous interview with F Newsmagazine, Elissa Tenny, the President of SAIC, outlined SAIC’s strategy behind its current $25 million fundraising goal. In addition, when the Office of the President announced a temporary tuition freeze for the 2023- 2024 academic year, Tenny stated that an additional $3 million in aid will be allocated for disadvantaged undergraduates over the next four years. According to that email, SAIC currently awards “more than $50 million in financial assistance to undergraduate and graduate students each year.”

The Scorecard reveals at least one striking point. Students from households with total income less than $30,000 per year, on average, pay only about $10,000 less per year than students from households with income that exceed $110,000 per year. When questioned about the fairness of this number, Tenny answered, “My focus in the scholarship piece has been with this focus on affordability, equity, and access. Meaning, I want to be able to offer scholarships with any student who has the ability and passion to come to SAIC, even though they may be in the lowest economic realm. So that’s why my focus is on scholarships, particularly Chicago-based students who can’t afford to come to SAIC. I’d love for our endowment to be $500 million.”

Average undergraduate cost at SAIC by family income (Data from U.S. Department of Education on College Scorecard). Illustration by Shijing Li.

John W. Bateman (MFAW 2023) has a secret addiction to glitter and, contrary to his Mississippi roots, does NOT like sweet tea. After nearly 20 years in philanthropy, he left his Southern unicorn lumberjack shack and moved to Chicago.

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